Will the real Rishi Sunak please stand up?
I still don't have a clue what he stands for
There’s something almost too perfect about our (latest) new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. The slim cut, dark navy suits, always paired with a crisp, brilliant white shirt and suitably tasteful tie. The slicked back, regimented hair. The sunny Californian optimism, enthusiasm and speech cadence. Perhaps it’s the sheer teetotal contrast with Liz Truss’s short and shambolic administration, or the tousle-haired incompetence and chaos of the Boris Johnson era.
Or perhaps it’s that Sunak, with his MBA and top-tier financial services background, is the spitting image of the consummate, reassuringly expensive management consultant, coming to the workplace floor to talk – with a smile that never quite reaches the eyes – about the need to come together and implement ‘efficiency savings’. It wouldn’t be the first time an immoderately priced, besuited droid had been brought in to save a failing business. This time – that failing business is the Conservative Party, and frankly, UK Plc.
Of course, such slick personalities won’t openly telegraph the pain soon coming to the trenches. It’s all euphemistic and vague – they will talk of ‘overcoming challenges,’ rather than laying bare ugly frontline impacts. But heavily-hedged, benign and inoffensive troop-rallying is how it begins. For what did Sunak promise on the steps of Number 10? ‘A stronger NHS. Better schools. Safer streets. Control of our borders. Protecting our environment. Supporting our armed forces.’ All pleasant enough, but what next, motherhood and apple pie? It’s not even believable – we all know even more painful spending cuts are coming to already stressed public services.
We are all none the wiser as to what Sunak really believes in, beyond a bland sense of visionless managerialism reminiscent of Theresa May. His entire pitch to MPs could be boiled down to five words: ‘Things should be more better.’ There was no holistic intellectual case made publicly on why we are where we are – which is up the proverbial creek without a paddle, by the way – simply that difficult decisions will have to be made.
Truss may have been an unalloyed disaster that unravelled in mere weeks, but she at least correctly diagnosed our lack of economic growth – and its resultant pressure on living standards, tax revenues and public services – as our nation’s biggest strategic problem. That her radical, experimental surgery left the patient on the Bank of England’s life support machine does not mean that her initial diagnosis of the British disease was incorrect.
Sunak, meanwhile, has barely even paid lip-service to this gaping hole in our shared future. Where is his vision of growth for tomorrow? A little bit of capital allowance tax reform won’t make a big difference in a country that refuses to build houses and civil infrastructure. In her turbulent wake, he has been given a mandate by the parliamentary Conservative Party and the financial markets to be competent and fiscally conservative, and little more.
This leaves him a huge hostage to fortune. Like May, who hung her credibility on the hook of strength and stability in 2017, Sunak will now be judged on his managerial competence, and instead of his undeclared vision – if it exists at all – on such trite promises as ‘I will work day in and day out to deliver for you.’ Hardly inspiring. Hardly specific and measurable. And it is a brave man indeed that promises to be strong and stable while buffeted by the vortices in era seemingly defined by concurrent crises, the latest of which is the largest war in Europe since the forties – let alone under the governance of this fractious and disputatious Conservative Party, still raw from its summer and autumn of public humiliation under Truss and Johnson.
During the pandemic, ‘Dishy Rishi’ practically walked on water. Showering the electorate with money through the furlough and job retention schemes was the right thing to do under the dire pandemic circumstances, holding back millions from the cliff edge of destitution. But – appointed chancellor barely two weeks before the scale of the Covid-19 crisis started to become clear, this was how the public met Sunak for the first time. Most senior political figures emerge slowly over a decadal period in politics, enabling the public to slowly form a settled view on them as they accumulate glimpses of interviews or hear of ministerial decisions. But Sunak only first entered the parliament in 2015, and cabinet in July 2019, less than a year before his elevation to the chancellorship.
His public image was then forged almost immediately under a once-in-a-century crisis and the necessary wider reach of government support which had his name and face printed all over it. Accordingly, the electorate projected their hopes and values at the time onto this nice, friendly-looking blank canvas, each assuming the decent chap giving them lots of money agreed with them about everything. His approval ratings at the time were among the highest ever granted to a chancellor.
This man has nice vibes, they all thought. This happens to all politicians – voters project their views, expectations and ambitions onto new politicians, but are then forced to adjust this projection as future reality offers more data points, often in the form of disappointments and compromises and mistakes. But few politicians have had such a positive projection so soon after their introduction. Ever since however, the public has been less and less keen on Sunak.
The fall of the Johnson administration this summer was certainly attributable to general incompetence, ugly defences of allegations against Owen Paterson and Chris Pincher, and lockdown parties. But the mood music to this period was a boosterish, enthusiastic Sunak heralding tax cuts, all the while breaking a manifesto pledge to hike national insurance rates on the country’s workers to pay for the social care of the wealthy elderly, and allowing fiscal drag to claw in even more in income tax. His wider ‘too little too late’ spring statement didn’t land well, either. Rhetoric must align, to some degree, with reality, and the public sniffed out these ruses immediately, well aware that there was increasingly too much month left at the end of the money.
It didn’t help that Sunak clearly thought, while running the nation’s finances as chancellor of the exchequer, that the tax affairs of his wife were off political limits. ‘To smear my wife to get at me is awful,’ he said. I’m sorry? Whether non-domiciled tax arrangements for foreign income should exist at all is an open question, but it should be open and closed for the wife of the head of a country’s finance ministry. Closed it turned out to be, when under political pressure she ended her use of non-dom tax arrangements to avoid being a ‘distraction.’ Around the same time, Sunak himself was then found in hot water over still holding a green card that gave him US job rights and tax return obligations while chancellor.
Later, after plunging the knife into the Johnson administration partially over his appalling standards in public life, Sunak then immediately upon becoming Prime Minister reappointed Suella Braverman as his home secretary, a job she was fired from only six days earlier for breaching the ministerial code. A reappointment made not because it was right, but because it kept the right of his party on side.
Let us also not forget that he was sufficiently unappetising to lose to – of all people – Liz Truss, in the first leadership contest. With so little political experience, is our safety wife prime minister actually any good at politics? Incidents such as the moment where he declared to a sunny garden party during the summer contest that he had redirected money from ‘deprived urban areas’ to ‘places like these,’ in leafy and middle-class Royal Tunbridge Wells suggest otherwise. Even if you were to take at face value his allies’ excuse that he was referring to genuinely deprived suburban and rural communities, saying something easily misinterpretable like this, at the very least, demonstrates a great degree of political naivety.
While Sunak may not have spent too long in the bloodsport of politics compared to many of his colleagues, you don’t rise through the ranks of the elite investment bank Goldman Sachs, and to Prime Minister, without a base level of competence, a thick skin, and a ruthless streak. But the glaring question that remains, is whether his apparent managerial competence is masking the absence of a broad-based growth strategy, or, at an even more basic level, an innate instinct for the bitter carnality of frontline politics.